The Shrew Must Go On: Kiss Me Kate at The Old Vic

Brando meets Shakespeare: always a winning combination, surely.  Rebecca Hazel Roughan lets us know if Trevor Nunn’s 1940’s musical take on The Taming of the Shrew toes the line.   


As an English undergrad, any excuse to watch reworked Shakespeare is greeted gladly. This season, the all-female Julius Caesar seems to be the pinnacle of sophistication, while Kiss Me Kate – the 1948 classic which reworks The Taming of the Shrew into a ‘play about putting on a play’ musical – is a show that could easily be consigned to the realms of light entertainment with some throwaway snobbery. Arguably not ‘Too Darn Hot’( the show’s number of the same name certainly is) for The Old Vic, this production, with all the glitz and ‘showbiz smiles’ one expects, is certainly more than ‘light’ entertainment.

The golden age of just about everything theatrical, the 1940s are to be particularly commended for the musicals that emerged from this sensational era of cigarettes, pin curls, and Marlon Brando.  Apparently, director Trevor Nunn never even contemplated relocating the setting to anywhere but the era of its inception – it would be an “appalling mistake”. I cannot help but agree – not only for the fantastic costumes that designer Robert Jones was able to commission – but also because, though the age-old ‘battle of the sexes’ storyline is still relevant, elements of the relationships would not work in a contemporary setting – a lyric like, “Mother had to marry Father” (taken from the phenomenally titled solo for Katherine, ‘I Hate Men’) would be curiously outdated following the second wave.

In fact, the main flaw to be found in this production was its finale, which leaves our ‘shrew’ seemingly subservient, a problem that originates in The Taming of the Shrew itself.  Both plays allow a strong independent woman to exist beyond definition of a man but, alas, as the title gives away in simple terms, this ‘shrew’ must be ‘tamed’. Enlightened directors portray both leads as ‘taming’ one-another, but the subtlety of Fred Graham/Petruchio’s (Alex Bourne) conversion away from misogyny leaves us with a somewhat anachronistic end.

Visually, the whole performance was strongly reminiscent of the Old Vic’s recent success Noises Off, and so it should be – Robert Jones designed both. The costume and set for Shrew the Musical (the play ‘within’) were wonderful and sufficiently theatrical. However, this play ‘within’ was disappointing at best. It wasn’t clear whether we were supposed to think of it as an expected flop, a la The Producers, or whether the show was to be taken seriously. The final product was, of course, predictably farcical but there seemed to be no investment from the cast in the in-play-production. The dialogue taken from the Shakespeare was undeveloped and incomparable to the musical numbers – by far, where the production shone; David Burt and Clive Rowe’s laudable rendition of ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, in view of this, became somewhat ironic.

For a professional production, the quality of the acting was surprisingly mixed. There was something jarring about Holly Dale Spencer’s Lois Lane, and the relationship between her and Adam Garcia was woefully underdeveloped. On the other hand, Alex Bourne and Hannah Waddingham hit the mark time and again with their sensationally delivered dialogue. A league of wonderfully delivered lines – Waddingham’s “I’ll never call you a bastard again”, for example – proved to be where the production excelled but, sadly, a few too many aspects of the production jarred for this musical to be pitch-perfect.


*** (3 Stars)


PHOTOS/ Catherine Ashmore